Immigration: The Other Predators

01/12/2017 05:12 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2018
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in Trump Tower, Manhattan, New York, U.S., January 11, 201
U.S. President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a press conference in Trump Tower, Manhattan, New York, U.S., January 11, 2017. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton

Fear in immigrant communities started to build long before the 2016 presidential election, amid Donald J. Trump's promises to increase deportations dramatically if he won. Although Trump's policy positions have sometimes shifted--is he planning to ban Muslims, or not?-- this core tenet has stayed constant. As the country marches towards the inevitability of January 20, 2017, and Trump's assumption of the presidential mantle, immigrants are scrambling to prepare for an enforcement onslaught.

Americans differ over whether Trump's immigration stance will help or hurt the United States. It also remains to be seen how swift and strong his "deportation force" will be. But there is one group in particular that sees economic benefits from any crackdown: people who prey on immigrants by offering shoddy or nonexistent legal "services."

Immigrants are ideal victims. They shell out money they can ill afford in the hope of securing the ability to live and work here. People pretending to be lawyers, and attorneys who promise to fulfill immigrants' wishful thinking, can put themselves on a path to at least temporary riches when policy upheaval is on the horizon.

Immigrants who have a valid opportunity to remain lawfully in the United States may find that chance destroyed if eager attorneys take on more cases than they can manage, and risk mishandling them. As one colleague likes to remind me, sometimes the best-case scenario is losing money on an attorney who does nothing. The much uglier scenario is where an overly occupied attorney, or someone pretending to be an attorney, files case documents that trigger deportation.

From many attorneys' perspective, these are the ne'er do wells who diminish the profession's credibility. But there is no point in denying their existence. All human beings are flawed, we all make mistakes, but some people exploit immigrants as a business practice. The legal profession can be no more perfect than humanity itself.

One of the more notorious swindlers of recent years--non-attorney Stella Figueredo--bilked her "clients" of hundreds of thousands of dollars running an unlicensed law practice. Another scoundrel, John Waldemar Lugo, snared "clients" by claiming that he was a former immigration officer and a law school graduate. In reality, he had provided security services to an immigration detention center, where he apparently identified a population vulnerable to fraud. Both Figueredo and Lugo eventually came to the attention of state Attorney Generals (New York for Figueredo and Texas for Lugo) and were ordered to cease their illegal activities. The New York order also landed Figueredo more than $1 million in the hole.

These stories beg the question, how can you tell? How do you know when someone wants to help you, not just himself? There are a few steps, listed below, that are simple and effective in screening out non-attorneys or known charlatans, but my sense is that few people use them. Attorneys' business models and lures may also provide clues, though those clues are far more subtle, variable and subjective.

Screening Tool 1: Is the service provider a licensed attorney?

That's an easy one. Every state bar organization has a list of licensed attorneys, and if you ask the service provider where he is licensed to practice you should be able to verify his claim on line. Conveniently, the American Bar Association (ABA) has compiled links to every state's directory of licensed attorneys here. There is simply no excuse not to check the directories, and it can nip scams in the bud.

Screening Tool 2: If the service provider is a licensed attorney, has that attorney been reprimanded or suspended from practice?

Again, the ABA makes this question easy to answer, by providing links to state disciplinary authorities here. A disciplinary history does not automatically disqualify an attorney. Imagine a twenty-five year old lawyer who misses a deadline and negatively alters the course of a client's life, but who, after a one-year suspension from practice, spends the next decade building a stellar reputation. You may view this attorney differently from the guy down the block who is currently in disciplinary proceedings, after receiving a public reprimand only a few years back. Or maybe you won't. It's your choice to make, once you have armed yourself with information.

Screening Tool 3: Ponder attorney business models. What signals do they send?

Attorneys have a range of legitimate business models. Some charge flat fees, typically when the amount of time necessary to complete casework is foreseeable. In some instances, hourly rates may be preferable, in particular if the amount of work is hard to predict.

But there are some business models that I find perplexing. For example, an attorney might charge his clients a monthly fee, with no stated end-date or final lump sum amount, for the privilege of being on his roster. Paying monthly installments to reach a final total over the life of a case--sure. We all recognize that as a payment plan. But the other sounds more like a membership fee. I have difficulty seeing how it benefits anyone but the lawyer.

One client told me a story about an all-cash, up-front payment that I found troubling. According to the client, a previous attorney insisted on going to the bank with him so that he could withdraw the entire case fee, which amounted to thousands of dollars, and pay it then and there. Does something feel wrong about that? Does it give you the impression that the attorney planned to evade taxes? If the attorney is willing to lie to the government, might he be willing to lie to you? Try to understand the messages that financial behavior sends.

If a client wishes to pay in cash, so be it. And some attorneys rightfully prefer being paid up front instead of chasing well-earned fees after the fact. It was the attorney's insistence on a large all-cash payment that was troubling.

One of the most dangerous lures is the guarantee of success. If a potential client calls an immigration law office, and is promised success in his case even before the attorney has conducted a consultation, that office has waved a big red flag warning him away. In general, promising success makes no sense. The government, not the attorney, holds the keys to the castle.

A few months ago, a potential client scheduled a consultation and said he would bring in the full legal fee for a green card application. I had to tell him that I couldn't take the case (or the fee) before our meeting. My takeaway from the conversation was that he believed his proposed sequence of events was standard practice. It should not be.

Advertising a high success rate can be problematic, particularly if there is little to no indication of the complexity of the cases or the nature of "success." Taking an example from criminal law, would you find that acquittal on one count outweighs conviction on four others, and therefore indicates "success"? It would have to depend on the strength of the evidence on each count, among other factors. The point is that general claims like "95% success rate" are not very meaningful.

Free consultations can be tricky. Obviously, no attorney makes money on the service. Certainly, an excellent and experienced attorney may offer free consultations when starting up a new practice. In many areas of the law, free consultations are the norm. But if you walk into an immigration law office, and there is a crowd of people waiting for free consultations, pause and think about it. How is the attorney making up for the unpaid hours? Does the attorney take more cases than she can handle? Or does she charge excessive fees? Maybe she has good answers to these questions. I don't know.

At the end of the day, all consumers, including immigrant legal consumers, must be alert to human motivations. An alluring promise of success during a free consultation--doesn't that sound lovely? Maybe. Or maybe not. That Siren song might leave you dying on the rocks.